The Wachowskis haven’t directed a ton of movies. They also haven’t given a ton of interviews. If we can look at their output versus their impact (and in the case of Speed Racer, divisiveness), they look an awful lot like auteurs. There’s a number of themes they enjoy working with as well as a brand of visuals that seem conflicting movie to movie even as they share a kernel of The Future between them. At the very least, it would be easy to call them auteurs, but they completely reject the title and the concept.
After Bound, The Matrix series, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas and their non-directorial writing (most notably V for Vendetta), they’ve maintained a firm view of film as a truly, inextricably collaborative process. For them, that goes even above and behind the standard meaning.
They’re a bit enigmatic, but that’s fantastic. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from two totally normal, crazy people named Lana and Andy.
Allow For Meanings to Shift
“Even when we talk about our films, it’s reductive,” says Andy. “I mean, you’re setting this definition ‐ certainly film as a collaborative medium ‐ there are many ideas put forth into the film. So I am uncomfortable delivering the definition of what the movie is from on high. Because there is meaning that has been put in by the actors, there’s meaning that is put in by the production designer, by the costumers. [The director defining the film] feels sort of narrow-minded. The way a film can change over the generations… You watch a movie when you’re 20 years old, and you see the same movie when you’re 35 years old or 40 years old, and something happens.
The movie changes, because we change as individuals. To have this sort of thing attached to it, [authoritative voice] “This is what it means…” I’m am still finding meaning in what Bound did, or even the first Matrix, because now I’m able to look back on it as reflective, and older and wiser.”
Not only is this full interview fantastic, it’s also incredible to read about a director shaking loose his ego to discuss subjectivity without sounding like the poster boy for pretension. The recognition that meaning can shift not just person to person, but from within a single person as they grow older is something key to remember and all-too-human to forget about.
We talk in objective terms all the time about subjective things. We talk about the greatest movie or whether something was bad or good. We hand out awards denoting a single person as the best actor of the year, and those decisions are immediately derided and celebrated by the colorful swath of opinion-havers (i.e. all of us). But the difficult element of any art is that subjectivity plays a massive role in creation, making it difficult to know whether your piece is going to be enjoyed and by whom. Failing to recognize subjectivity and the collective experience of film makes that even harder to see.
So if everything is subjective, can’t you just make whatever you want, slap an “art” sticker on it and be happy? If you truly don’t care about audience, probably, but here’s the kicker about subjectivity…
Learn the Language of Film By Honoring the Editing Process
From the must-read feature by Drew McWeeny at HitFix:
“I brought up the Keanu Reeves documentary Side By Side and talked about how that looks at the technical side of the jump from analog to digital, and how I feel like editing in particular has evolved because of the move to the Avid and Final Cut Pro and similar non-linear systems.
Lana agreed, saying, ‘Editing is a really interesting topic too because it’s also aesthetic based. It is essentially the grammar of cinema, the sentence of cinema. And pretty much every movie since I was nine was, you know, from a capital letter to a period. Scenes progress through a series of cuts, and maybe you throw in a dissolve, which is more of an ellipse, you know, instead of a period. But we were sick of that, too. And if you read post-modern fiction, something like Rick Moody’s “Purple America” or James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” you see these authors trying to transcend the boundaries of conventional grammar, trying to get your brain to think about language differently.’
One thing I’ve noticed about Lana Wachowski in conversation is that when she gets rolling with an idea, she gets excited by the idea, and it’s like a feedback loop of enthusiasm. ‘And so we started trying to do that same thing with Speed Racer. We said, “Okay, we are going to assault every single modern aesthetic with this film.” And we said, “Why do you have to use cuts? We want to do sequences that are like run-on sentences, stream-of-consciousness sentences that don’t just start and end with the conventional cut, that are just montaged collages and flow the way”… you know, what Joyce was looking for was the way that his brain experiences the world. Joyce said, “I want to try to demonstrate the way my mind works as I’m getting all of this input and it doesn’t cut things and it doesn’t order things and it doesn’t always make sentences.” There were moments in Speed Racer, like the races, where we just wanted them to feel like this experiential flowing thing that was was transcending normal simple linear narrative.’”
How do we reconcile the concrete language of film, the concept of subjectivity and the existence of those that bend or break the rules? That’s unclear, Kierkegaard, but there is a fundamental lesson here about walking and running. The Wachowskis are great at what they do not solely because they are open to experimentation, but because they have a rudimentary understanding of the core craftsmanship that directly allows them to break the rules of that language in the service of style.
Bad filmmakers don’t know the rules. Good filmmakers only know the rules. Great filmmakers know the rules and how to break them.
Mess With Everything, Including Craft Services
Or: “Make the Music First”
Amazing Visuals Can Have a Storytelling Purpose
I’m stopping short of saying they should have a storytelling purpose because there are all kinds of movies out there. Still, a visual that mirrors or challenges a theme or a plot point is one that creates another layer, instantly making the movie something more complex (and proving that the production had some sort of plan).
Here’s Lana on the way Francis Ford Coppola crafted the scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone takes a moment in a restaurant bathroom after finding a gun meant for him to use on his companion:
“Michael stops, runs his hands through his hair, stares at the door and prepares his mind. Coppola does that moment as a high-angle shot from behind. Any other director would have moved around for a close-up. It’s so much better the way he does it. We’re forced to think about what’s ahead of him that he’s walking into, not just look at a shot of his face.”
The DP and director have God-like power to show us exactly what they want us to see, and the best use that power with exciting wisdom. It’s the stuff that keeps us talking long after the credits roll.
Build an Elevator Shaft Even If You Don’t Know How
Going into Cloud Atlas, The Wachowskis took close to a dozen big gambles. Their last directorial effort had failed financially amid mixed reviews, and the film they’d last produced, Ninja Assassin, wasn’t exactly a runaway hit either. They had lost the golden touch (which, it should be said, is a near-impossibility which they captured in their first mainstream try), so it wasn’t like they were free to experiment on top of the world.
Falling deeply in love with the novel by David Mitchell, they engrossed themselves in learning the book with astounding intimacy so that they could print the un-filmable onto screenplay pages. The pair did all this without knowing whether Mitchell would sign off on the project, but instead of railroading him, they insisted that he give permission before going ahead with the filming. At that point, there were still about 10 gambles left.
All of this finds its core in a small paragraph inside the indispensable “New Yorker” piece on the filmmakers:
“After Andy dropped out of Emerson College in his sophomore year, the [siblings] reunited in Chicago, where they started a construction business, learning most of the skills on the job. They once built an elevator shaft without any plans or previous experience, having projected unquestionable confidence to the people who’d hired them ‐ not an unuseful talent in the film business.”
Seriously? They bid for a construction job they didn’t know how to do, won it and then built an elevator shaft? Does anyone know if it was safe to use?
You can see the enormity of the undertaking, and the brass buttons it takes to say that, yes, of course you can do something that you have no idea how to do. Sometimes filmmaking requires that kind of absurd confidence (but don’t do anything that might make people fall down several stories or anything).
Be Passionate Beyond the Bounds of Reason
Confidence is one thing. Deep, abiding love is another.
What Have We Learned
Maybe too much. The enigma of these two filmmakers is really a blend of seemingly opposing ideas. Boundless experimentation tied to rigid craftsmanship; niche passions inside mainstream appeal; a giant budget in support of something complicated. Not many people would have made the connection between philosophy and action movies (except those of us who know that Plato was a black belt in Judo), but The Matrix was a graceful reminder that two supposed opposites can work well together.
We’ve come to a weird point in major studio filmmaking where one and one always mean two. There’s a polarization which has all but killed middle-budget movies, and a giant spectacle usually means one thing. A huge cast of A-listers usually means one thing. There’s no need to say what it is, because we all know it well.
The Wachowskis are the kind of filmmakers that allow us to remember that one and one can be more than two. Or less. Or they can add up to a letter or an animal or an idea. They may seem out there because of their methods (and the reclusiveness only adds to the myth), but in a straightforward way, they seem to recognize the inherently discordant nature of filmmaking. Conflicting ideals co-exist, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.
They embrace that, and there’s a hell of a good lesson there.
Also, Speed Racer rules.